When Barack Obama lands in Brazil this weekend, he will find a country transformed. In little more than a decade, some 30 million people have been lifted out of poverty and the country has risen to seventh place in the world economy.
Change at home has revolutionized policies abroad. Brazil has woken up to the 10 states along its borders, becoming the eminent power and driver of regional integration in South America. It has set out to develop closer ties simultaneously with Israel, Syria and Iran.
Brazil has been wooing friends with credit, aid and trade. It has set up shop in most countries in Africa, where it delivers fast-growing aid and development assistance and invests heavily in oil and infrastructure. Brazilian generals command the United Nations operation in Haiti.
In the process, Brazil has become a major creditor, supplier and client of the United States. Holding some $160 billion in U.S. bonds, Brazil has a major stake in the recovery of the U.S. economy.
With most of the Amazon within its borders, the world’s 10th largest oil stores, and nearly a fifth of the world’s fresh water, Brazil is an environmental power, an energy power, and guarantor of global food security.
Once an inward-looking society, Brazil now faces the challenge of projecting its own interests and voice around the world on the major global issues of our time.
But Brazil’s rise in global politics has irked many in Washington. Clashes of worldview and interests have erupted in recent years over issues like Iran, Honduras, Colombia, climate change, international trade, Iraq, Cuba and Venezuela. In the past two years in particular, mutual distrust has colored much of the bilateral ebb and flow.
For Americans uncomfortable with a rising power in their extended neighborhood, Brazil’s independence has been unreliable and downright provocative: it is perceived as Iran’s friend, a rising power wary of the value of human rights as a global good, and one too easily wooed as a darling of African and Arab states.
These are dangerous misperceptions. But the inauguration of President Dilma Rousseff earlier this year has opened a window of opportunity for the United States to come up with a new, more sober assessment of Brazil.
Like her predecessors, Rousseff has insisted on dealing with the United States on equal footing and will not be bossed around. But she has also signaled clearly that she wants a productive relationship with the leading power in the world and has no taste for ideologically tinged disputes.
Obama’s discussions with Rousseff could change the tenor of the conversation in Washington about Brazil.
Part of the Brazil story is structural. With the axis of global power migrating away from the North Atlantic, engaging Brazil on its own terms will increasingly become a necessity on issues that require deep cooperation, such as financial governance, climate change, nuclear proliferation and food security. Moreover, American interests in Latin America will require growing degrees of consultation and cooperation with the leading regional power, Brazil.
Part of the story is about values. As the world struggles to find a common new conception of global order, Brazil is a valuable asset: It sits firmly in the West but it is well equipped by history to engage “the rest.” It is a multiethnic, vibrant democracy and a market economy. Weaving their own narrative of exceptionalism based on stunning social achievements at home, Brazilians relate to the American Dream in ways both profound and inspiring.
Brazil will turn down any proposals to become a formal ally of Washington. But as a major beneficiary of globalization, it will not seek to overturn the existing rules of the game. Rather it will try to adapt them smoothly to a changing world.
Obama’s visit to Brazil also has the potential to transform talk there about the United States. As it rises, Brazil will confront problems that it has found it possible to ignore before — cocaine and criminal networks from the Andes, labor conflict in Africa, China’s currency manipulation. Brazil will also come under increasing pressure both from the developing world and the stronger powers to show where it stands. In such an environment, Brazil will benefit from an effective channel to Washington. Obama’s visit can create one.
The presidential visit is full of symbolism. Breaking the gender and race barriers in their respective countries, Rousseff and Obama illustrate the powers of democracy. The visit will also be full of pragmatism. With both presidents facing major domestic challenges on job creation, education, infrastructure and overall competitiveness, the conversation might reveal some surprising common ground.
To many in Brazil, the Obama administration seems to talk the talk of multilateralism and dialogue, but when push comes to shove it is more comfortable with the more familiar unilateralism and monologue.
Obama must demonstrate that he understands that different views of the world need not sour the bilateral relationship; that on the contrary, a major power and a rising one working together can produce innovation on the major challenges of the day. One step that would be highly welcome in Brazil would be for Obama to declare support for Brazil’s quest for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Presidents Obama and Rousseff have the opportunity this weekend to start building a genuine partnership between their two countries, one that may feel unnatural at first but will be needed more and more.
Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she directs the Global Brazil Initiative and Matias Spektor, the director of the Center for International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro.